White and Gold
Women’s hoops hitting their stride, coming together heading into WNIT Sweet 16
By Jon Cooper
The Good Word
It would be an understatement to say Georgia Tech women’s basketball is playing well.
That understatement is underscored by the 97 points by which the Yellow Jackets won their first two WNIT games.
Those 97 points are more than the combined point totals of first-round opponent Bethune-Cookman and second-rounder UAB, combined.
“I think we’ve started to find ourselves,” said head coach MaChelle Joseph, whose Jackets followed the 85-32 decimation of the 24-win, MEAC regular-season champion Lady Wildcats last Thursday night with a 91-47 smothering of the 27-win, Conference USA regular-season champion Blazers on Sunday. “We’ve found out who we are, we have our identity.”
The blowout of Bethune-Cookman might have been foreseen as Georgia Tech is 12-0 all-time against the MEAC, winning by an average of 30.3 points and are 9-0 in the Joseph Era, with an average victory margin of 27.9 points. The 91-47 rout of UAB is a little more attention-grabbing.
Joseph feels people should start paying attention, she’s seen this kind of devastating play coming.
“We’re playing together. I said in February, we started playing at a really high level,” she said. “We lost two games in February, at Notre Dame, a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, and at Florida State, which is a No. 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
“We felt like all season long we were a really good basketball team. We were just beating ourselves at times,” she added. “In February we stopped beating ourselves and we started playing together and we are a very tough team to beat in March and I think we’re playing our best basketball.”
Senior forward Zaire O’Neil is not only playing her best basketball of the year, she’s playing some of the best of her career. After going for 16 points and 10 rebounds against the ‘Cats, O’Neil almost single-handedly extinguished the Blazers, going for 24 and 10, grabbing five boards at each end of the floor, while shooting 10-for-13, with two assists.
“I think that’s her best game all the way around as a Yellow Jacket,” said Joseph. “To see her playing her best basketball at the end of her career means a lot to me. I thought that she played with a lot of confidence but not only did she play on the offensive end, she played hard on the defensive end and that’s been something we’ve challenged her with throughout her career. I thought she was phenomenal on both ends of the floor. She made some great passes, too, and got other people looks and was able to finish with contact inside.”
O’Neil, the game-high scorer, led four double-figure Jackets -- Kierra Fletcher added 14, Francesca Pan had 13 and Antonia Peresson with 10. That gives Tech nine double-figure scorers for the Jackets in the two games, with seven different players recording at least 10 points.
“Everybody’s contributing, nobody’s worrying about who gets the credit,” said the senior center. “That’s when we’re at our best. I love games like this when everybody can contribute, everybody can play, everybody can help.”
O’Neil was especially devastating during the second quarter, when she outscored the entire Blazers team, 14-12, shooting 6-for-6, and hitting both of her free throw attempts. She did all her damage in only 9:33.
“I think it’s really just something about postseason, it just brings something out in me,” said O’Neil, who is shooting 62.5 percent (15-for-24) in the WNIT, and is 76.9 from the foul line (10-for-13) after averaging 13.5 points on 58.8 shooting (30-for-51), 60 percent from the line (21-for-35), with 7.0 rebounds in last years Tournament. “I love games like this, I love moments like this. I thrive off of it.”
O’Neil’s thriving against the Blazers came primarily on short jumpers, as five of her six buckets in the second quarter came as a jumper.
“I just took what they were giving me,” she said. “I spend extra time in the gym working on that shot. So if I see the opportunity to shoot it I’m going to shoot it. The crazy thing is I didn’t notice it at all.”
O’Neil has noticed the improvements in her game, which has added to her versatility.
“Coming in as a freshman, all I wanted to do was catch it on the block and turn or do a move on the block,” she said. “Being here has really helped me expand my game to the point where I’m really comfortable shooting that shot. Credit the coaches.”
“In practice, we work on passing the ball to each other, getting the ball to each other,” she said. “We have to be buddies. We have to be best friends in the post. We like to bounce off each other. It’s ultimately helped the team.”
Cubaj has 25 points in her first two WNIT games, and is shooting 48.0 percent (12-of-25), with 21 boards, 10 assists, three blocks and three steals, while Brown, who played in the NCAA Tournament Final Four last year with Oregon State, has 18 points on 90 percent shooting (9-of-10), with five rebounds, three assists and three steals.
The quality play has continued from the back court, where Fletcher has not only scored (14 points in each game on 9-of-16 shooting, 10-for-12 from the line), but she’s also been active on the boards, grabbing six rebounds in each game, and has been a dependable and careful distributor -- seven assists without a turnover in 41 minutes.
“I think we’re shooting the ball particularly well across the board,” said Joseph. “We don’t have to depend on just one or two people to score. I think that’s really made a difference.”
Another difference maker has been clamping down on the opposition defensively. The Jackets’ pressing defense forced BCU to shoot 19.3 percent, and commit 29 turnovers, while UAB shot only 28.3 percent with 16 giveaways. Both teams managed only 20 percent success from three, and both team’s leading scorers -- BCU’s Angel Golden and UAB’s Rachael Childress combined for 13 points, with Golden managing eight points on 3-for-12 shooting, 2-for-6 from three, Childress, five points on 1-for-10, 1-for-7 from behind the arc.
The Jackets will look to advance to the quarterfinals on Thursday night, when they head to Tuscaloosa to play against Alabama. The Crimson Tide is 19-13 overall, 13-5 at Coleman Coliseum.
It’ll be the teams’ fourth meeting in three years after not having met for the previous 23. Georgia Tech has won two of the three meetings, including a 70-58 win in Coleman in 2015 and at McCamish in last year’s WNIT, a 76-66 win with a berth to the semifinals on the line. Alabama squeaked by 67-65 at Coleman last Dec. 17.
The Jackets won’t have home court, which has been big for them -- they are 15-3 at McCamish this season, 3-8 on the road -- but they believe their recipe for success doesn’t change with a different venue and travels.
“At the end of the day, we’ve got to do what we do,” said Joseph. “We have to defend and rebound the basketball and, obviously, make layups and free throws.”